New York

Ilya and Emilia Kabakov

Sculpturecenter / Sean Kelly Gallery

Installation artists may be the last social optimists, for their work depends entirely on the willing participation of viewers they haven’t met and will never meet. When installations work, it is as a dialogue between artist and viewer that remakes the social.

Long misperceived in the West as a Conceptualist, Ilya Kabakov is, rather, an imagist and a fantasist who constructs situations in which the work’s most active site is the viewer’s imagination. Kabakov has often said that installation is a young art. Indeed, he has done more than any other living artist to foster its growth. When The Empty Museum was first shown in 1993 at the Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Kunst in Frankfurt, it was accompanied by a series of lectures elaborating the theory and poetics of his “Total Installation.” In these talks, the artist described such works as instruments for bringing the viewer to a state in which he or she will recognize the illusion being created in the installation while simultaneously being wholly absorbed into it, that one will be transported while at the same time watching oneself being transported.

The Empty Museum, re-created at SculptureCenter, is an unusually spare and pointed attempt to induce this sublime state. In the two installations shown concurrently at Sean Kelly Gallery—20 Ways to Get an Apple Listening to the Music of Mozart, 1997, and two rooms from The Children’s Hospital, 1998—the viewer’s experience is more directed: by texts and illustrations in the first and by a more intimate and more highly determined mise-en-scène in the second.

Inside SculptureCenter’s great room, an interior has been constructed, like a box within a box. Entering through a door ajar, one finds oneself in what appears to be a large, classically appointed gallery of a provincial museum. Deep red walls are set off by elaborate gold molding above and blue-green wainscot below, and large, two-sided velvet benches bisect the room. The only thing missing from this traditional museum setting is the pictures; they have not yet arrived. But everything else necessary for the aesthetic experience is here. Track lights on the ceiling cast vertical ovals of light onto the four empty walls. The aura of the missing pictures is invoked by these glowing pools and by the transporting organ strains of Bach’s Passacaglia that fill the room with baroque variations of such sustained inventiveness and harmonic intensity that one begins to visualize images in the lights—museum memories, yes, but also new images, made of the moment. Because of the self-reflectiveness of the situation, one remains at a certain distance from the event, but it still takes place. For anyone susceptible, the effect is palpable. When the moment passes, one might have the urge to flee, before the sad shabbiness of the construction reasserts itself and the elaborate emptiness of the conceit strikes home.

In the Kabakovs’ view, European and American rationalism sees emptiness as a lack, whereas Russian emptiness is an active force—transcendence with a history. “The aura which comes from our past,” Ilya Kabakov has written, “is what stops us from sinking into oblivion, and what we call our culture, our interior world.” It is a measure of our time and place, perhaps, that we experience that culture alone, in a made-up room.

David Levi Strauss